Herald Outdoors Columnist
The coldest waters on earth do not lie beneath Arctic ice. They are found in south Alabama during duck season. At least that’s where they were back in January, 1964 as the boy stood waist-deep, without waders, in the middle of a Deep South cypress swamp.
The boy was 11 years old and on his first waterfowl outing. He was soaked to the skin and freezing. His teeth were chattering loudly enough, he believed, to spook any ducks that might chance to fly in his direction. His one saving grace was the special care ever-kind Providence provides drunks, fools and young’uns. He was also fortunate hypothermia had yet to be invented.
For a year he had begged his Uncle Earl to take him duck hunting. He had received a hand-me-down, single-shot 16-gauge the Christmas before and, having previously downed a handful of mourning doves and maybe a half-dozen squirrels, was sure he was ready for the “glamorous” sport of waterfowling. The longsuffering Earl at last relented to his pleas, finally giving his consent simply to shut the boy up.
“Alright, worry wart,” Earl growled. “We’ll go. But remember, duck huntin’ is mostly for crazy people. Just see you don’t whine and carry on and don’t you be expectin’ me to baby you.”
“Oh, nossir, I won’t. I promise,” the boy replied.
Excitement had the boy sitting on ready when Earl picked him up early the next morning. He was still pumping adrenaline after a bouncing 30-minute ride in the battered old pickup. His grin widened when at last they came to a rattling halt and Earl said, “Git out, boy. We walk from here.”
Shortly afterward, the smile faded and the forbidden whining and complaining began, albeit silently and out of his uncle’s earshot. Woe be unto an utterer of whines or complaints within Earl’s hearing range.
The boy quickly learned that “We walk from here” meant wading, slipping and falling on his face for a half-mile through mud, muck, slime and all the mysterious lurking aquatic creatures such media contains. After stepping in his third stump hole, he still didn’t expect Earl to baby him, but he certainly would have welcomed it. He was completely waterlogged and his down jacket had absorbed enough foul-smelling liquid to increase his weight by at least a hundred pounds. He was seriously regretting having ever read all those Corey Ford and Charlie Elliott duck hunting tales.
An eternity later, the pair reached a break in the cypress trees. Earl stopped the boy where he stood, commanded him to stay, then waded on to set himself up in a spot some 30 or 40 yards away. That’s when the youngster’s teeth began hammering away like an old Royal typewriter and the eerie solitude of predawn darkness conjured images of all the vile supernatural things that prowl swamps prior to sunup. It’s also when something wet, cold, and very much alive swam up his open pants leg.
“Please, God, let it be a fish!” he prayed. He wanted very much to cry, but was afraid the tears might freeze on his face and break off his nose. And he thought he wanted to be a duck hunter. Sheer insanity!
Then, a little past daybreak, the wood ducks and mallards began arriving. Earl’s first shot startled the boy and, thanks to a large measure of dumb luck, he lifted his head in time to spot and swing on a squealing drake woodie jetting through the treetops. With the aid of another timely dose of fool’s good fortune, he instinctively shouldered his old single-barrel, cocked the hammer, swung and slapped the trigger. The streaking bird folded and fell with that satisfying shot-ending splash that continues to excite the “boy” even now, nearly 50 years later.
As the sun steadily climbed, the action tailed off and the hunters made a sloppy repeat journey back to the truck. Earl tossed two mallards and a woodie into the pickup bed. The boy’s duck rode up front with him.
Back at home, Earl regarded his cold, muddy, bedraggled nephew and chuckled.
“Told you a man was crazy to take up duck huntin’, didn’t I?”
“Yep,” the boy grinned, his first-ever wood duck grasped proudly in one hand.
By the way, the critter in the kid’s britches did turn out to be a fish. A little old bluegill.
Right then he wouldn’t have cared if it had been an anaconda.